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Treat drugs as a public health problem

We've come a long way from "I didn't inhale," former President Clinton's rather lame attempt to explain away a marijuana toke. President Obama has been candid about his use of marijuana and cocaine as a young man when he was grappling with his identity. In his autobiographical Dreams From My Father, he wrote, "I got high (to) push questions of who I was out of my mind."

The revelation barely caused a ripple during the campaign.

Maybe America is maturing on the question of what to do about illicit drug use. When youthful experimentation no longer dooms a career in politics, it means that people have stopped equating former drug use with degeneracy. Most adults in our country have either have used a banned drug themselves or know someone who has — someone perfectly upstanding today. And that will help us move beyond the sensational and destructive "war on drugs" rhetoric to a place where drugs are viewed primarily as a public health problem.

For four decades we have tried to imprison our way out of the drug mess. And all we have to show for it is a bulging prison population, decimated urban communities, and real drug wars in places like Mexico and Colombia, where the narcotics trade terrorizes the population and corrupts policing.

That is why our smart, new president said on the campaign trail that the war on drugs "has been an utter failure" and we need a new paradigm "so that we focus on a public health approach." President Obama is tapping Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to be his new drug czar (he was also onetime chief of police for the Florida cities of Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie). He's known as someone who supports research-driven public policy, but we'll see if that means real change.

There have always been two competing sets of harms relative to the drug problem. First, there is the damage that a drug user does to himself. A crack addict generally ruins his life and probably that of his family, there's no getting around that. But the prohibitionist approach to drugs carries its own set of harms that are now priced beyond our means.

The United States currently incarcerates 2.4 million people, and roughly 20 percent of state prisoners and 50 percent of federal prisoners are doing time for a drug offense. We arrested 775,000 people for marijuana possession alone last year. The estimated cost of incarcerating drug offenders is $15 billion annually.

Addiction destroys lives and families but so does prison, particularly long mandatory minimum sentences for minor offenses that are a direct consequence of political demagoguing rather than sane policy.

Where would you rather see $25,000 of tax money go, toward sending someone found with marijuana to prison for a year or providing three addicts with substance abuse treatment? A Rand Corp. study in 1994 commissioned by the Army found that $7 in societal costs were saved for every dollar invested in treatment. Yet as a nation we choose to imprison the marijuana possessor time and again. The priorities are backward and spendthrift.

Meanwhile drugs of all varieties are still cheap and plentiful. And the basic economics of drug dealing remain: Take one dealer off the street, another takes his place. That simply doesn't happen for other crimes such as murder, embezzlement or burglary.

In a just-released report, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico say that their countries face out-of-control drug violence spawned by America's prohibitionist approach, and they ask point-blank that we change course to focus on public health and the possible decriminalization of cannabis.

Kerlikowske comes from a place where medical marijuana is legal and voters approved a ballot initiative to make marijuana arrests the lowest priority for law enforcement. And while he has not publicly approved of these policies, it is hoped that he'll bring this Seattle sensibility to his new assignment.

The war on drugs was an expensive flop by every measure. Now that we're back in evidence-based reality, it's time we try something that works.

Treat drugs as a public health problem 02/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 3:30am]

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